‘Financial Freedom Program’ Tops DifferenceMaker DCU/Manning Field

A Zoom screenshot of Innovation Contest judges and participants applauding the winning team
Manning School of Business seniors Amy Michelin and Craig Williams, second and third columns of third row down, receive an ovation on Zoom after being named winners of the Rist DifferenceMaker DCU/Manning School Innovation Contest.

By Ed Brennen

Senior business administration major Craig Williams noticed an interesting paradox while working with fellow UML students last year as a Money Management Mentor.

“There’s a great deal of financial literacy education out there, so much so that it’s ultimately overwhelming for young consumers,” said Williams, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, native whose concentrations are in finance and management information systems.

So to help simplify things, Williams and fellow senior business major Amy Michelin came up with the “Financial Freedom Program,” an online platform that presents financial literacy education to high school and college students in a fun, game-like environment.

Calling themselves the “Millennial Finance Educators,” Williams and Michelin won the eighth annual Rist DifferenceMaker DCU/Manning School of Business Innovation Contest, held recently on Zoom. 

“The objective of our program is to educate and motivate high school and college students to care about financial literacy,” said Williams, who along with Michelin received a first prize of $500 from Digital Federal Credit Union (DCU) and an automatic entry in next semester’s DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge.

Michelin, a Lowell resident with a concentration in entrepreneurship, added that their program would stand out from the competition by focusing on teens — a market often overlooked by financial institutions.

“The end goal for every DCU member is financial freedom, and we provide the tools to accomplish just that,” Michelin said as she outlined the four-tier program that would be hosted on the DCU website. “The program covers the basics, straight through saving for retirement, while preparing them and inspiring positive thoughts about their financial future.”

Six teams competed in the finals, which were held virtually for the first time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They included Borrowed Pay Cut (Kevin Zhang); Cash Transfer (Aiman Baig, Abhi Kiran, Danny Nguyen, Fazil Soharwardi and Haris Waqar); Paper Trail (Yeaharne Hout and Edward Morante); Searchin (Md Sadman Islam) and Track It (Yuhan Sung).
Amy Michelin presents her team's project on Zoom
Amy Michelin pitches her team's Financial Freedom Program in the Innovation Contest finals.

Each of those team members received a $100 prize from DCU for making it to the final pitch contest.

Students made their five-minute pitches to a panel of four judges: Andrew Knaebel, DCU’s director of information systems infrastructure; Sandesh Parulekar, DCU’s director of information systems development; Barbara Russell, co-founder and managing partner of Cap W; and Joseph Vaillancourt ’90, ’01, managing partner of Venture Enterprises and president of Cyclyx International.

DCU President and CEO Jim Regan ’88 attended the competition, as did DCU Innovations Manager Thomaz de Moura, who once again mentored the finalists — albeit through a screen this year.

“All the work and collaboration has been done remotely, and everyone has been awesome from the beginning,” said de Moura, who added that it was interesting to see how some of the teams’ ideas were a consequence of the current pandemic and its effect on people.

Paper Trails, for instance, is a fitness app that “gets people healthy both physically and financially” by giving them small amounts of money to invest each time they go for a run or walk.

Manning School Dean Sandra Richtermeyer thanked Entrepreneurial Initiatives Program Director Holly Butler and everyone involved with moving the contest to Zoom this year. 

“It’s a challenging time right now with everything virtual, but we could not be more proud of you all,” Richtermeyer said. “This partnership with DCU and DifferenceMaker is so valuable to so many students, and it’s something we look forward to every year.”

In addition to his work as a Money Management Mentor his junior year, Williams has also worked as a financial order processing co-op at UKG (formerly Kronos) and as an accounts receivable intern for the City of Cambridge.

Michelin, meanwhile, has worked as a credit restoration agent at AM Credit Restoration. 

“It was great to be part of it,” she wrote about the competition afterward on LinkedIn.